Dr. Mom blog explores how to practice Positive reinforcement and discipline when parenting

As a physician, I often get parents coming into my office asking for help or advice on parenting and discipline. As a parent I realize how challenging discipline can be and the importance of consistency. The method of discipline and parenting that I try to practice with our daughter (and encourage my patients to try) is positive reinforcement parenting. Positive reinforcement has been well studied in the discipline and parenting literature. It is an appropriate and effective form of discipline for children of all ages!

Contrary to what some parents think, just because a child is more temperamental or challenging to raise does not mean that they will not grow up to be well-adjusted adults.   Some children just need more structure and reinforcement than others.  

Here are some key steps to start parenting and disciplining your child with positive reinforcement

When your child is behaving well, take time to notice this behaviour (aka positive reinforcement of good behaviour). 

Noticing and congratulating good behaviour in the form of verbal acknowledgement is key!

For example: if your teenager continues to maintain acceptable grades in school (All families are different and what is deemed as an acceptable grade standard may differ between households) – reward them for their good effort by giving them a privilege, or verbal congratulations and acknowledgement. 

“Hey great job there, you got an A- that’s amazing!” or “you were so calm and polite at Aunties house, great job!” Everybody needs a good “pat on the back” – especially children.

Establishing age-appropriate rewards and privileges for your child. 

What motivates your child and is a good “carrot” for good behaviour? The reward of playing with a toy car may be reinforcing at 5 years old, but not at 16 years old.  

For a 4 year old – a reward may be watching Peppa Pig for 30 minutes. For a 16 year old it may be being allowed to take your car to the mall for a few hours.

Rewarding good behaviour (aka positive reinforcement) may be more effective than punishing bad behaviour.

Studies have shown that rewarding good behaviour actually can be more effective than punishing bad behaviour.  

For example: if your child refuses to clean their room, threatening them with a punishment of being “grounded” or taking away their phone is one way to intervene. Your child may then be motivated to clean their room to avoid a “punishment.”

But another method you might find more success with instead – is to reward your child with a verbal acknowledgement and/or a privilege when they do clean their room! Studies have shown that rewarding and acknowledging “good” or “wanted” behaviours can be more effective than punishing bad behaviours!

Rewarding good behaviours can be in the form of providing verbal acknowledgement, congratulations, or allowing a privilege when your child is being polite, following directions, getting good grades, etc.

Try to make a mental note to reward, acknowledge, and congratulate your child a few times per day

It may be helpful to make a mental note to congratulate your child a few times per day on their accomplishments and good behaviours. Acknowledging and congratulating good behaviours will help support your child’s confidence and self esteem.

As many of you know, discipline and parenting is hard work. I try my best to practice positive reinforcement parenting daily, but there have also been times when I have given in to bad behaviour. In general, I try my best to practice what I preach and find that my daughter responds well to positive reinforcement, so I try to make a mental note to actively acknowledge Madi and her good behaviours – at least a few times per day.

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Black, MD, BSc and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.


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